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'Vagina,' once unmentionable, has become a fashionable term

The word with so many euphemisms is increasingly used in TV shows, films, social media and the culture in general.

May 27, 2012|By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times
  • The cast of "Girls": Allison Williams, left, Jemima Kirke, Lena Dunham and Zosia Mamet.
The cast of "Girls": Allison Williams, left, Jemima Kirke,… (Mark Seliger / HBO )

When Eve Ensler opened her play "The Vagina Monologues" off-Broadway in 1996, people who called the box office to order tickets were afraid to name it. Motorists complained about highway billboards advertising it. Some newscasters wouldn't utter the title of the show.

"Everybody told me to change the title," Ensler said. "'You're never gonna get this play done.' The whole idea was that you made a political and artistic choice to go see a play called 'The Vagina Monologues.' I used to say 'vagina' was more dangerous than Scud missiles or plutonium. You couldn't put 'vagina' on the front page of a newspaper."

To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims commercials, you've come a long way, vajayjay.

Unmentionable for so long, referred to with euphemisms including "down there" and "hoo-ha," the anatomically correct "vagina" has gone mainstream. It's now become not just acceptable in many circles but fashionable. It's being used as a punch line on sitcoms and in movies. It's appeared on magazine covers. It's become a political shorthand in an election year laden withwomen's healthand reproductive issues. It even has its own memoir — "Vagina: A New Biography" by Naomi Wolf — due in September.

Many women see the recent ubiquity of the term as more progress toward equality with men, but not everyone is welcoming the vagina vanguard. Some see the sudden omnipresence of female anatomy as a sign of a coarsening culture, a lack of creativity, or just a new way to objectify women. Lady Gaga drew protests in Asia this spring after performing in front of a giant prop of a birthing mother and telling audiences to "think of this arena as a vagina where you will be reborn." The Catholic League is boycotting"The Daily Show" because of a recent skit in which a manger was shown between a naked woman's legs, linking the "war on women" with the "war on Christmas."

Why is ladybusiness booming? In part, it's because women raised in an era of sexual frankness are at a point in their lives where they're in positions of authority and cultural influence, according to Laura Berman, assistant clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

"This is generational. The women raised by the 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' women are definitely much more empowered and comfortable with their bodies," said Berman, citing the influence of a feminist health and sexuality book first published in 1971 that covered topics like pregnancy and menopause in unexpurgated language.

A March study by the conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council found that the word "vagina" was used eight times as often in TV comedies, dramas and reality shows last fall as it had been a decade ago, citing series like CBS' "2 Broke Girls" and ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" — both programs with female creators — as those that invoke the word most frequently. The twentysomething HBO comedy "Girls," created by 26-year-old Lena Dunham, drops a vagina reference in nearly every episode, including a recent one titled "Vagina Panic." (Guy parts are also, ahem, on the rise: "Penis" was used nearly four times as often, the PTC study found.)

"Fifty percent of the people in this country have vaginas," said "Grey's Anatomy" executive producer Shonda Rhimes, 42, whose medical drama is widely credited with popularizing one of the decade's most fashionable euphemisms for vagina, "vajayjay," to work around nervous ABC executives. "The idea that we're afraid to talk about them or call them by their proper name feels really silly to me.... It's great that some progress is being made and it's not such an issue anymore."

Berman, who appeared regularly on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," said she pushed Winfrey to start saying "vagina" in sex and health discussions on her program in 2008. "I did a mini-intervention with Oprah to get her to stop calling it a 'vajayjay,'" Berman said. "She saw it as an affectionate term. It still implies to women listening to you that it is something embarrassing to say."

Winfrey isn't the only cultural arbiter whose vocabulary has been evolving. In 2010, after 45 years of dispensing sex and relationship advice to women, Cosmopolitan magazine printed the word "vagina" on its cover.

Previously, the magazine's editors had deployed such terms as "down there" and "hoo-ha" in their attention-grabbing cover lines, but they decided to make the leap after noticing young women used "vagina" when speaking to one another on social media sites. Executive editor Nicole Beland said she felt Cosmopolitan's readers were ready for a little realism. Since then, editors have put the word on their cover two more times, including the February headline, "Um, Vagina, Are You OK Down There?"

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